Silhouette of a man reading against the rising sun

Irficionado | Every New Book

Logo for Irficionado seriesIt takes a while

Getting into

The geography of a new book,

But once you do,

It ends up changing

The contours of every mental nook.

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Cover pic for this piece with the title of this piece and the cover of 'Sleeping on Jupiter'

Irficionado | Books | ‘Sleeping (Well) on Jupiter’

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Author Anuradha RoyI discover Anuradha Roy through a Hindu interview and like her attitude: frank and no-nonsense. I read up more about her and begin liking her voice. I come to know she’s nominated for The Hindu Prize 2015 and wonder if she’ll disappoint a favourite writer nominated alongside, Siddharth Chowdhury, but she doesn’t – neither of them wins, in fact – but am okay; I guess because I haven’t still read her. Then, she wins the DSC Prize (given for South Asian literature) – $50,000, or Rs 32,50,000, the cost of a 1 BHK on the outskirts of Chennai and the nethers of Bombay / Mumbai – and I resolve to finally read her. So, I buy Sleeping on Jupiter, for which she won, just before a 16-day workation to Bombay and Bangkok. And what do I do? I start reading on the way to Bombay, finish two chapters… and then nada through the entire trip and 10 days after that, after returning to Chennai, as I’m busy settling back and then fall sick.

So, although I finally finished it a couple of days ago, because of this long gap, because I lost the flow during that time, this will – criminally – not be a review, but rather just a few points on it.

Right off the blocks, Anuradha writes keenly. The second chapter alone – The First Day – can be a delightful short story in itself. After that, I found her stellar writing continuing, but wasn’t struck by it, but this could be because I was either used to her style by then or due to that damn chasm in reading.

The story itself is not a novel structure – it’s the one with multiple stories (of multiple people) converging at some point, in this invented town of Jarmuli, which sounds like a mongrel of Digha in West Bengal (due to the beach), Konark in Odisha (the famous big temple) and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh (the erotic sculptures).

I won’t get into the details of the stories, though here’s a sliver: three old women making a trip to the temple town without their families for some time with their best friends, a documentary filmmaker who was adopted as a child coming to trace her bitter past under the pretext of researching for a film on the temple, the cameraman assisting her going through a divorce, a temple guide in love with a server (a guy) at the beach tea-stall… Through them emerge dark and heavy themes of unholy godmen, the frustration of gay love, the spirit-sucking degradation of the faculties in old age, and the despair of failed marriages.

Roy builds up the stories astutely, making them mingle well and at the right time. Does she resolve them, at least some of them? Well, she gives all of them an ending, but not surprisingly, there is melancholy laced in each, and one ends particularly macabre, in fact, you get this right at the end.

Now, due to the reading break, that’s all I will, or can, say about the book. Nevertheless, I do have two comments more. Though this could be the advertising / branding (brand-naming) part of me talking more than the writing part.

Cover of Anuradha Roy's DSC-Prize-winning book, 'Sleeping on Jupiter'For a long time, you wonder about the title of the book. Having almost reached the end and finding no signs of it, you wonder if you’ve missed it, or if you haven’t, then whether Roy won’t reveal it to you. But she fortunately does. And I kinda like it. (I had my own take, just in case, which I’ll share right after.)

So, ‘sleeping on Jupiter’, with its many moons, and their quiet, peaceful, soothing lights – the light of our moon at night times Jupiter’s – promises to be calming for the tortured human soul from earth. There, under that blissful light, you’re free from the tyrannies of vicious godmen, agonizing old age, depressing divorces and scary pasts. Forget Mars, we should target Jupiter.

My take, which I later realised could be considered similar, comes from the Hindi word and Hindu mythology for the planet. Jupiter in Hindi is called ‘brihaspati’ or ‘guru’ (if you consider the day, Thursday, or ‘guruvar’) and is considered a lucky planet (compared with Saturn, called ‘shani’ and regarded as the inauspicious one); and ‘guru’ in Hindi also means a ‘spiritual teacher’. Just what you need to go through the hardships of life. I will help plan that mission to Jupiter.

Finishing the book, I went through the end praise for her previous two books, An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. So, her titles all seem to employ geography and then twist it? Well, doesn’t life?

So, even though I’m not sure if this was worthy of a $50K award – but again, blame the chasm – but for the titles and her apparent “exploration of the human condition” (just had to use this oft-used phrase by reviewers), going by Sleeping on Jupiter, my appetite is whetted. To the size of Jupiter.

Author Anuradha Roy receiving the DSC Prize 2015 for her book, 'Sleeping on Jupiter'

Anuradha Roy receiving the DSC Prize 2015 for ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’

Indian mythology fiction writer, Amish, in his study

Irficionado | Books | Something’s Amish

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Cover of Amish's first book, 'The Immortals of Meluha'I read Amish’s first book in the Shiva trilogy (‘The Immortals of Meluha’, his first book ever, which also shot him to spectacular, overnight fame), soon after it released and on taking in all the buzz, up to page 100, that too with a lot of self-pushing, and gave up. The writing was too every day.

I like mythology, especially Hindu mythology, which almost blends into the religious domain. And I like Shiva – his wild appearance, his yin-yang forces of masculinity-femininity, the anger he harnesses within, which when provoked, manifests through his taandav dance or, in rare cases, through the opening of his third eye, and eventually his power to destroy (which is actually aimed at restoring balance in the world). But I need my writing (that is, the writing in the books I read) to be as engaging as the story itself. Which is why I gave up on Amitav Ghosh too (many of his fans themselves say his books are tremendous… from a research perspective, and therefore a delight… for academics).

Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The HinduNow, why would somebody who had an interesting subject (to the best of my memory, no Indian writer had written fiction around Shiva before this; they have on Ram – through the Ramayana – and on the Mahabharata, but not the Destroyer God) not write mesmerizingly on it too? The session with Amish at the recently concluded The Hindu Lit for Life litfest provided some answers, or better still, some insights. (Interviewing Amish was Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I’ve met and corresponded with a couple of times.)

Indian mythology fiction writer, AmishOne of the first questions to Amish was about something he himself has stated earlier: he gets the plot of his books and its details through some “divine inspiration”. He just sits at his laptop and sees clearly the pictures he’s going to paint, and the writing just flows. Amish has also said how he’s a Shiva bhakt and believes Shiva, and the other gods (or people), did exist. (He also reveals how he was atheist for a long time before he turned believer.) If you want to read “divine inspiration” in another way, it can mean pure talent. So, Amish has the innate talent for this; it’s, well, God-given. But now, if his books seem more like recordings than narrations, that means… he does nothing more with his talent. No developing it, no growing it, no interfering with it. Stasis. (Which also means that if one day, the talent deserts or subsides within him, then what? No worries. The author is also a good speaker and businessman – he kept goading attendees to buy and read his books – and can rely on these other talents to see him through. Plus, in India, there are enough takers for mythology/religion.)

Indian mythology non-fiction writer, Devdutt PattanaikThat however was only one part of the story. The tale unraveled further when Amish answered another question (and the most exacting one of the interview, in my opinion). “Your writing seems a bit utilitarian.” A euphemism for “functional”, or worse, banal. (Good one, Vaishna.) Amish fielded this one as well as he did the other questions (he came across as being as diplomatic as the other hugely successful writer on Hindu mythology, though in non-fiction, in India, Devdutt Pattanaik), saying that each style (pedestrian vs poetic) has its merits and serves a function, and in a very cloistered way, agreed that his writing is not, to use another euphemism, ambitious.

The decider though was yet to come. When asked about the kind of books he reads, Amish answered that while he reads a lot, and has been doing so for a long time (4-5 books per month), only 15%, at the most, 20% of it is fiction; 80-85% is non-fiction. Based on the kind of writing he produces, I dare say this non-fiction is more detail-based than narrative. And there I guess you have it. Why Amish writes the way he does.

Composite image featuring, from top to bottom, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Bishwanath Ghosh and Siddharth ChowdhuryIf I had to read interesting mythology, I’d go to Arundhathi Subramaniam, author/poet on spirituality and culture, who has written a book on Buddha and who chaired a session on female Indian mystic poets at the litfest. I still wouldn’t go to Devdutt, who I believe merely presents (or worse, packages) mythology (though he knows a lot about it, and well, packages even better when speaking). For non-fiction (non-fiction that actually reads like fiction), I’d go to someone like Bishwanath Ghosh, also Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I met at the fest too. And for fiction that reads like narrative non-fiction – it’s that easy and simple and warm – I’d go to someone like Siddharth Chowdhury, who too I met at the fest. And about who I’d be blogging about next.

Really, Amish, I’m more than happy to give you A-miss. And now, I know just why.

Front-Back covers of 'The Secret Sanctuary', Stephen Alter's new book for children

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘The Secret Sanctuary’

Humans were never meant to interfere with animals. Animals were meant to be in the wild, and humans in the plains, or well, non-wild. But man is man, and has not been up to much good since the time of Cain. He has let his population and greed go forth and multiply, so much that it’s come at the cost of the animals’ (population only; animals aren’t greedy, they take only how much they need, food and territory alike). Many animals have lost their habitat and thus their numbers, and others find themselves in what are sanctimoniously called sanctuaries, spaces that nevertheless have boundaries and in many cases fences that define how much space an animal can have. But what if there was a space, a sanctuary, a place for animals where humans just couldn’t enter, or better still, not interfere?

Stephen Alter, with the Himalayas in the backgroundStephen Alter introduces just such a place in his new book for children, ‘The Secret Sanctuary’. The sanctuary is set in the real-life Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, near the small village of Kolti, north-east of Mussoorie. The story takes us through one day in the lives of three kids, the siblings Kamla and Pradeep and their friend Manohar. The three set off for their distant school one morning as usual, through the edges of the forest, then distracted by a marten pair on the hunt, go deeper and lose their way. As they slowly and as gallantly as possible try to find the path out (there puzzlingly doesn’t seem to be one, at least not in the same direction they came), they realise they and their interferences with the animals (such as stroking a barking deer) are oblivious to the animals. The forest is the animals’ alone, it’s truly an animal sanctuary.

To help the kids (and perhaps to enable the philosophy of the book to emerge), Alter introduces a naturalist in the middle of the forest. He is appropriately named: Dr Pashupatinath Linnaeus Mukherjee – Pashupatinath afPashupatinath, the incarnation of Shiva as the lord of the animalster the mythological lord of animals and Linnaeus after Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, or basically, the person who stipulated all those Latin names for plants and animals. The ‘Animal Doctor’ knows the workings of the forest deeply – he has been there, lost or wandering, for the past three years (although he’s not sure of the exact duration, as “Jungle Time” works differently, slowly, he says). He came there for the believed-extinct Mountain (Himalayan) Quail, but hasn’t given up despite not spotting it even once. Dr Mukherjee provides them food (fruits, seeds, tubers and other things green and edible), water (the hidden spring, which proves to be a secret sanctuary within the secret sanctuary) and shelter for the night (a cave that he shares with a bear, who does make an appearance, but remember, the animals can’t see the humans, so all of them sleep soundly, though a bit tightly), opens them up to the magic of the forest (the birds’ dawn chorus), and most crucially, answers their questions about animals, birds, their lives and workings.

In the end, the kids do manage to find their out. But there is no big adventure (apart from the doctor tumbling down after pursuing the supposed call of the quail), no major action (the result of the leopard stalking the goat-antelope doesn’t unravel in front of their eyes, so you don’t know just then “who won”), no breakthrough (the doctor doesn’t find the quail, yet); in short, there’s no high drama. The kids leave the forest as they came, unobtrusively. Also, they don’t destroy anything in the sanctuary: they use the doctor’s sBear Gryllis in (eating-wild-animal) actionolar lamp at night, forage for the fruits of the forest, and most remarkably, don’t do a Bear Grylls: they don’t hunt (making a big point about surviving in the wild without destroying the balance / sanctity of the place; although technically they can’t hunt in this case because of their “non-interferability”). The animals in their place, the humans back in theirs, without disturbing the former or their way of life. Just the way nature meant it to be.

That itself is a big achievement of Alter’s. Else, most animal / kid fiction ends up being extremely racy / pacy. Here, the author treats his reader kids almost as grown-ups, or at least mature, leaving them to work out the philosophy from the deceptively simple narrative. And it is a philosophy rather than a message. A message, that too about animal (habitat) conservation, could come across as forceful and thus be eventually discarded. But a philosophy, being more at a principle level, is easier to adopt, or at least consider.

But Alter serves up other glories too. He knows the environs intimately: you feel he could make his way out of this sanctuary if it came to that (Alter was born and now lives in Mussoorie, and Dr Mukherjee almost seems his alter ego, except that the doctor came from elsewhere and Alter came back here). And he writes immaculately, to paint the perfect picture of the place and its creatures: The bear had a strong, earthy smell, like a big dog but with a wilder, stronger smell, as if he’d been rolling about in rotting leaves. You feel you’re the fourth kid there in the forest.

However, Alter reserves the best part, of his intention, for last. In the acknowledgments section, he mentions how 50% of his royalties from the book will go toward the Reserve. So, go on, visit this sanctuary, both for the love of reading and for that of animals.

Signboard stating 'Jabarkhet Nature Reserve'